Wheaton College’s move is raising more suspicions than providing answers. There are growing questions on whether the evangelical college is giving the professor fair and equal treatment.
Wheaton is seeking to terminate Larycia Hawins for comments she made on a Facebook post. Hawkins announced on Facebook that she was donning the hijab in solidarity with muslims. The college, however, balked, both with her solidarity and her statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”
On Saturday, TIME reported that provost Stan Jones initially found Larycia Hawkins “same God” comment to be “innocuous.” TIME also found evidence that Jones treated Larycia differently than others who said similar statements. Jones coached other faculty on what to say to avoid punishment, but he communicated with Hawkins by having another faculty member approach her.
These revelations raise serious doubts about the fairness of Wheaton’s actions. Wheaton College is a private evangelical college that has broad rights on hiring and firing, but it also grants tenured faculty protections as part of their contracts.
Tenure is not a guaranteed life-time appointment. It is first and foremost a right to due process and termination only “for cause.” Before a professor earns tenure, a college may (and should!) consider the professor’s entire record—teaching evaluations, assessments of publications, fit with the institutional mission, and relationship with colleagues are all fair game. Failure to meet the qualifications for tenure means an end to the professor’s career at the college. After tenure, however, the list of reasons for termination shrinks to a small list of essential, clearly articulated reasons.
Each college and university has its own list of what qualifies as cause. In most cases, cause is limited to a failure to do the job, unethical behavior, or gross incompetence. At religious colleges, there may be further requirements to adhere to certain beliefs or practices. At Wheaton, these requirements are laid out in its Statement of Faith (which lists doctrines that must be affirmed) and the Community Covenant (which lists both beliefs and behaviors). Failure to affirm the college’s doctrinal statement is cause for termination.
So, let’s say a college believes it has cause to fire a professor—then what?
There must be due process. There should be an established process that protects the professor and the college, a process that reaches the correct, fair conclusion. There are professional norms for this process, and Wheaton College’s written policies are generally in line with these guidelines (the notable exception is that Wheaton limits counsel to someone who is not a lawyer; this means the professor cannot pick the person they believe can best assist them in a hearing with legal implications).
The problem for Wheaton College is that, in this case, it appears to be deviating from both the letter and spirit of due process in significant ways.
Here are six questions that faculty, students, and the rest of us should be asking about the college’s actions.
1. Is the college circumventing the termination policy?
Wheaton’s process for terminating a tenured professor is simple, but it’s not clear whether it is truly being followed.
There is a Provost who serves as the chief academic officer. One of the Provost’s responsibilities is to implement policies on tenure, discipline and dismissal. When a tenured faculty member violates a requirement for maintaining tenure, the Provost can recommend termination.
The recommendation moves to the Faculty Personnel Committee (FPC), which is a nine member committee elected by the faculty. The FPC conducts its own hearing and makes its own recommendation.
The president of the college will then consider both the Provost and FPC recommendations in making his own recommendation to the Board of Trustees, which makes the decision.
Think of it as the provost acting as the prosecutor, the FPC as the trial, and the president and board acting as the judge and jury.
The process becomes a farce if the president or board have meddled in the investigation or charges. They can’t act as objective judges if they in any way assisted in developing the charges against Hawkins.
There are two reasons to suspect that the process is tainted. According to the timeline of events, Hawkin’s participation in the investigation stopped December 19. Then, over the next two weeks the provost wrote a forty-page document giving detailed charges and evidence. I find it unlikely that the provost, facing no deadline, single-handedly put together such an extensive recommendation over the Christmas holiday. Maybe provost Stan Jones has the energy and drive to do that, but I would have needed more time.
More importantly, The events of the past month suggest that the college administrators and board were acting as if they had the authority to deny tenure. The college was negotiating with Hawkins as if they have unchecked authority to remove her tenure. They offered to keep her teaching for two years but without tenure. This is the very thing they did not have right to do at that point, because they had not followed the written procedure. Only after Hawkins turned down their offer did they begin the written process of removing her tenure. This process begins with them and ends with them. Haven’t the judges already made a public statement on their opinion, without having heard anyone else’s evidence? Put simply: is this a sham?
The FPC should question whether the president, the board of trustees, or the college’s attorney’s were involved in 1) the provost’s decision to recommend termination or 2) the writing of the recommendation.
2. Is the college shifting the burden of proof?
The provost’s recommendation to terminate-for-cause is not public (indeed, the college has ordered Hawkins not to provide a copy). In Hawkins’ press conference, however, she read a portion of the accusations made against her. According to Hawkins, the charges from the Provost read,
“First, Dr. Hawkins has failed to provide reasonable assurances that her personal theological beliefs are in line with the Statement of Faith and the College’s theological positions.”
The Provost then lists a series of statements that “are among those of significant concern.” These include her statements about Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God.
This statement, while detailed, is unclear about what Hawkins did wrong. Read the statement again. What did Hawkins do? Is Wheaton College accusing her of not affirming the Statement of Faith? No. She is accused of not providing evidence that convinces the college that she still believes in both the Statement of Faith and “the College’s theological positions.”
Termination with cause places the burden of proof on the college, not the professor. It’s the college that must provide evidence that Hawkins is lying when she affirms the Statement of Faith, not Hawkins that must provide evidence to the contrary. Hawkins can’t defend herself against the college’s “concerns.” She made statements. The college is concerned. But that doesn’t mean she is denying the Statement of Faith.
This is a critical point. If the standard is that a tenured professor must be able to convince the college that he/she truly believes in a doctrine, then the professor is unreasonably at the mercy of the college.
Hawkins (and every professor, trustee, and administrator at Wheaton) must sign a document each year stating that she affirms the statement of faith. She went through a long tenure review process in which the veracity of her beliefs was tested. She is not required to prove that she’s telling the truth.
The burden of proof is a major issue in tenure. When a professor is seeking tenure, the burden is on the professor. A college can use it’s own judgment on whether tenure qualifications were met. For example, a college like Wheaton may deny someone tenure because the professor has not shown through words and deeds a full commitment to the college’s faith. Tenure reverses the burden of proof. The college, by granting tenure, has accepted the professor’s affirmation. It is now up to the college to demonstrate that the professor’s statements lack veracity.
Has Hawkins “failed to provide reasonable assurances” of her faith? It’s irrelevant to tenure. The real question is whether the college can prove that Hawkins is lying when she says she affirms the Statement of Faith.
3. Is the college adding new, unwritten faith requirements?
The college isn’t limiting its claim to the Statement of Faith. It invokes “the College’s theological positions.” It is unclear what these positions are, where they’re written, and, most importantly, how they are relevant to termination as they are not included in the list of reasons a tenured professor may be terminated at Wheaton.
The college has the right to make theological statements. It may even require them of tenured professors. At this time, however, the only faith requirements for tenured professors are laid out in the Statement of Faith and Community Covenant.
4. Are previous investigations going to be held against her?
According to public reports, Hawkins has been investigated three times prior to last month’s events. She was questioned after writing an academic paper that drew from black liberation theology, after being tagged in a Facebook picture from a party the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade, and after making suggestions on the college’s curriculum related to diversity and sexuality.
In each case, the college made its investigation, found that Hawkins affirmed the Statement of Faith, and welcomed her to continue teaching without interruption or change in status. In other words, she did nothing wrong.
As the current investigation moves forward, the provost, faculty, and college should not unearth these accusations or revise history to make them evidence of wrongdoing.
There is not a pattern of violations; it is actually a pattern of innocence. The college has three occasions investigated Hawkins and each time has determined that she upholds the Statement of Faith. Unless the college wants to admit that it was delinquent in its own investigations (not a smart move during another investigation), it should leave the past in the past.
The previous investigations also reveal a pattern of unequal attention to Hawkins and of unsubstantiated claims of misconduct. Wheaton professor Noah Toly (a white male) recently wrote that, like Hawkins, he too has drawn from black liberation theology—in a chapel message to the entire college community. Unlike Hawkins, however, Toly was given freedom to do so without an investigation.
The previous investigations (and the resulting findings) should raise the question of why Hawkins is being targeted differently. The provost has a responsibility to investigate claims of misconduct. But why are these claims more likely to be made against Hawkins and not against other faculty? The series of investigations is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing but may be evidence that Hawkins is being targeted unfairly.
Wheaton may even change the standards, but that that would involve a quite different process that would need to account for professors already hired and tenured. Whatever that process for changing standards is, it certainly isn’t appropriate to effectively change the standards after the fact and to announce that change to the rest of the college putting a faculty member on administrative leave, by suspending them, or by initiating termination proceedings.
5. Is the college treating Hawkins differently than other members of the college community?
The college has publicly admitted that other faculty at Wheaton have made similar statements to Hawkin’s “same God” comments. The college states that it “requested clarification” from these faculty.
“In those instances, the individuals rapidly and emphatically explained their opinions and affirmed their full consistency with the theological identity of Wheaton College,” the college said in a December statement.
TIME reported on the details of two of these cases. In one case, psychology professor Michael Mangis wrote a comment on Hawkins’ facebook post: “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers.”
Provost Stan Jones emailed Mangis about his post.
“I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” Jones wrote. “Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”
Jones then coached Mangis on what to say to clear up the matter. No further action was taken.
In another incident, English professor Tiffany Eberle Kriner published a letter to a local Islamic center. She wrote in the letter of their “shared love of the one God.” Jones worked with Kriner, too, on what language needed to be used to clarify her position.
Wheaton told TIME that Mangis and Kriner apologized, expressed regret, and worked with the provost on clarifying statements. Hawkins, according to Wheaton, did not.
Of course, one reason Hawkins may not have apologized is that it is not against the rules for a tenured professor to make a public statement; she is not required to apologize for causing a controversy. Statements are evidence to show that a professor does not affirm the Statement of Faith.
Mangis and Kriner are not the only members of the Wheaton community who have made statements similar to Hawkins. Hawkins’ explanation to the college for her “same God” comment are very similar to those made by Timothy George in his Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?. George is a life advisor to the Wheaton board of trustees, and as such, George must affirm the Wheaton Statement of Faith. Hawkins is going to lose her job for her statement. George, in contrast, has served the college at the highest levels despite his.
There is also a question of other faculty who make statements that appear to directly contradict the Statement of Faith without censure. For example, the Statement of Faith includes the following:
WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.
Last year, Wheaton professor John Walton published a book on the Bible and origins of humanity, and he has made public statements on the same topic. He claims that neither theology nor the text of Genesis demands that Adam and Eve were were “the first two humans, who were alone in the world and direct progenitors of the entire human race.” He further believes that science gives evidence against such claims. While death was a specific punishment for Adam and Eve, they did not bring physical death into the world; other humans existed at the time of Adam and Eve and death was part of the natural order, according to Walton.
To be clear: Wheaton may find Walton’s beliefs in line with its statement on Adam and Eve. My point is that the evidence against Walton is much stronger than against Hawkins. His work directly addresses part of the Statement of Faith and could be read as disbelief in the existence of “our first parents” who brought forth mortality as a consequence of their sin. Nothing Hawkins has said or done comes close to the evidence that could be brought against Walton.
6. Why is Hawkins still on administrative leave?
Wheaton College suspended Hawkins while conducting its investigation. The college explained that it did so “in order to give more time to explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of [Hawkins’] recent public statements.”
Suspension did not give anyone more time, but it did go against professional norms. The American Association of University Professors has a long-held policy on suspension:
“Suspension of the faculty member during the proceedings is justified only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by the faculty member’s continuance.”
As I’ve written previously, the only other recent case of suspension at Wheaton College was when a professor was arrested for child pornography charges. This was an appropriate action, particularly given that the professor worked in the area of child spirituality. Removing him from his position was necessary to protect students and the community.
Hawkins’s affirmation of religious solidarity with Muslims does not constitute a danger to students. Wheaton proved that it didn’t consider her a threat when it offered to bring her back to the classroom on the condition that she relinquish tenure. She refused; so, Wheaton kept her on leave. The only threat, apparently, is to have a professor in the classroom who insists on due process.